Martial Artist

It's Shelley Cohn's job to persuade lawmaking lunkheads not to gut the state arts budget

When the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee recently released a budget proposal that zeroed out future funding for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the wailing commenced. Artists who count on ACA grant money began wringing their hands; arts organizations chairs whose seed money is supplemented by the ACA reached for smelling salts. Anyone with a stake in or an opinion about the future of the arts in Phoenix fed the hue and cry of "how dare they?" Everyone except the Commission's executive director, Shelley Cohn.

At least publicly, Cohn is unflappable. No matter how I goad her, she's gently optimistic about ACA's future, refusing to badmouth the morons who aim to help themselves to the $8 million earmarked for state arts funding. She might well have a cross word for legislators to whom she must prove, between now and June when the proposed budget is approved, the value of arts funding. But Cohn's calm is about more than media savvy. She is, according to a former colleague, "the unruffled strength that drives the arts here. She's the real reason that the ACA will somehow prevail."

New Times: What a world. You have to defend government funding for the arts.

Shelley Cohn: You know, I don't object to that, because I think we have a great story to tell. It's the threatening part of it that's disturbing to me.

NT: You mean because you have to actually prove the importance of art and of the Arts Commission.

Cohn: Well, having to prove ourselves is one thing, but it's bothersome that there are people who don't believe that the state should fund the arts. Because when you think about the relationship between the arts and tourism, which is in the same boat we are, those are big industries in the state that speak to the future of Arizona.

NT: Right. Because the proposed budget also zeroed out the Office of Tourism. Which is very lame.

Cohn: Well, I think it's a wake-up call for all of us; we need to be articulate and clear about the value of art to the citizens who live here, and about how it draws people and makes them want to stay.

NT: But how do you prove the value of art to a bunch of lunkheads – and in only four months?

Cohn: Well, the state's priorities are recovering our economy and education, and we have to communicate the way that the arts play a significant role in both of those agendas. If we want to have a state that will attract new businesses, we need to maintain a level of culture. Because employers want to make sure there's a quality of life here that's attractive to their employees before they move their business here.

NT: And more than half of your programs are educational.

Cohn: Right, and it's education in a broad sense, aimed not just at kids in schools, but at adult learning, like lectures after a performance that make sure people can get more deeply into the artistic experience.

NT: Almost no one realizes that the Commission supports these things. In fact, most people don't know what the Commission does.

Cohn: I know. What we do is make sure that artists and arts organizations connect to the public. We do artist-in-residence programs so that kids can be with artists and explore their own creativity; we provide training for teachers; we help introduce people to the museum, the opera, the theater company.

NT: In a city where many people think culture is found in yogurt.

Cohn: Well, now. I've been at the ACA for over 25 years and there's been a tremendous change here regarding arts appreciation. People move here with high expectations, and thankfully we now have more beautiful facilities – the new library, the new museum. But what a shame if we're made to lose the product that goes into them.

NT: Your challenge is greater with so many new legislators to educate.

Cohn: Thirty percent of them are new! That's a tremendous learning curve. There's a nervousness on their part, too, because they may not know what the art thing is, and people who are in the arts might not be politically active, and don't understand the process. So there's that whole "getting to know you" experience.

NT: Getting to know elected officials doesn't sound like much fun.

Cohn: There are different ways we communicate with them. Remember, they're overwhelmed with information. Our goal is to personalize the experience by having them come to events where they see firsthand what would be lost.

NT: You also stand to lose matching funds from the NEA.

Cohn: Yes, because the NEA requires that we have dollar-for-dollar matching funds from the state. That's about $665,000. I don't think the Legislature wants to lose that money. As it is, we stand to lose our annual operating budget of $2 million, and the $8 million Arts Endowment Fife Symington helped create in 1996. In the last special session, they took $1 million of that money, and the plan now is to take out the rest. We currently only use the interest income from that, and so there's a growing concern about the loss of those dollars.

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